The Problem With How You Talk About Fitness

Rebecca up the ropeMy wife and I have been going to CrossFit Broad Ripple for 15 months. In that time it’s fair to say that our bodies have changed dramatically.

This transition from 162-pound skinny runner to 190-pound athlete has been a bit easier for me than it has been for my ballet dancing wife.

Still she loves how she feels these days so it’s well worth it. Even on bad days in the gym, we feel good.

The only problem: clothes shopping. As you get stronger, you are faced with a choice to purchase pants that fit your thighs but not your waist, or pants that fit your waist but not your thighs. (For the record, the correct answer is thighs, not your waist. Nobody likes skinny jeans.)

After a few months of fretting about our ever-changing bodies, she decided to abandon pants in favor of dresses and skirts and I’ve taken to buying khakis with elastic stretch in them.

(I had a boss who would refer to this as a “high-class problem,” which was his definition of the type of problem everyone would love to have. We have a hard time purchasing clothes because we’re in shape = a high class problem.)

In the final equation, we count ourselves lucky to have found a community that encourages the type of behaviors that have gotten us stronger even if the net result is that we can’t keep clothes around the house anymore.

CrossFit Women, and the Culture of Discouragement

Sarah on the overhead squatWhen you do CrossFit, you will inevitably get muscles. They may not be big muscles (at least at first), but you’re going to get them. This is the result of picking up and putting down heavy weights.

Most people won’t get bulky because that takes serious dedication, a strict diet, and a tremendous amount of work.

Trust me on this one. YOU probably aren’t going to get bulky.

However you can’t help but gain muscle and definition when you hit the gym regularly. Despite what you might think, this is a very good outcome.

Muscle is better than fat, and the lifestyle that comes with getting those muscles leads to better overall health. No doctor has ever told you that the best way to stay healthy is to get sedentary.

Yet if you hang around any CrossFit box for any length of time, you’ll hear stories of just how ugly people get when they see strong women outside the gym. (And by the way, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s only men who say these things; just as often you’ll hear women disparaging in the same ways.)

  • “You look masculine,” they say to women with biceps.
  • “Can you kick your boyfriend’s ass?
  • “Do you want to arm wrestle?”
  • “Does it bother you to look like that?”

It breaks my heart whenever I hear one of the women in our box talk about feeling self-conscious when they wear clothes that show their arms or legs. Just today I heard three women say they couldn’t wait for winter so they could hide their bodies.

Think about that: These women want to hide their bodies because they are strong, athletic, and badass.

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to continually defend yourself for being healthy and strong, nor can I imagine how discouraging it must be for those considering getting in shape to hear the terms and phrases people use when discussing fit, athletic women.

I’m sure most people don’t mean to diminish the women’s hard work and healthy lifestyle. Yet the insecurities of those around them and the willingness of those people to openly to express those insecurities creates a culture that discourages people from getting in shape.

A Side Note About Alcoholism

Five years and three months ago, I took my last drink.

Like other recovering addicts, my life had become unmanageable. When I made the decision to quit, my first order of business was to join Alcoholics Anonymous, a group that meets each day and supports a healthy lifestyle.

The conversations in those rooms differ greatly from the conversations people have about obesity and fitness in this country. While you are in those AA meetings, your disease, your problems, your shortcomings, and your path to recovery are laid out in no uncertain terms.

There is help, but there is no handholding. Nobody worries about your self-esteem.

Instead the recovering addicts help you face your demons, make amends, and start a new life. You are held accountable for your actions, and you are given the choice to either get busy living or get busy dying.

Never in my five years, though, has anyone told me that I was “too sober.”

The Causes of Obesity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 35% of adults and 17% of children in America are now obese. Those numbers are not getting better.

The National Institutes of Heath and the Department of Health & Human Services list the root causes for obesity. They can broken up into two general categories: lifestyle and family history.

Lifestyle:

  • A lack of energy balance
  • An inactive lifestyle
  • Environmental causes influenced by few local areas of exercise, overeating, and work schedules
  • Emotional factors
  • Smoking
  • Lack of sleep

Family History + Medical Conditions:

  • Genetics
  • Health conditions and medicines
  • Age
  • Pregnancy

We are very careful in this country when it comes to how we discuss obesity. Few people want to have the type of honest discussions that we have in AA because we don’t want to inflict emotional damage on people.

This troubles me because it subconsciously tells somebody that they are too weak to face their problems, that they don’t have the strength to change their lifestyle, and that they are resigned to whatever life they have now.

In many cases, obesity is related to the emotional health of a person, much like alcoholism. Eating (like drinking) is just the masking agent. To change that lifestyle, you must address the root cause then take active steps to forge a new path.

Before any of that happens, though, you must reinforce in the person that they are worth the change. Nobody quits drinking until they believe they deserve to live. I suspect nobody changes their eating habits until they feel they same way.

You don’t encourage people to change by creating a culture that tears down those who have already sought to make that change.

A Final Word about Fitness, Alcoholism, Obesity, and Culture

I oftentimes tell my students that in America we mistakenly believe it’s better to have people like us than to hear the truth from us.

Students struggle with this every day. They dislike critiquing their classmates because they don’t want to be perceived as “mean” even when I remind them that by failing to offer criticism they are sending their classmates to meet my grading pen with no defenses.

The question I ask: “Is it better to let somebody face failure so that you can consider yourself ‘nice’?”

My answer is to that question is this:

  • Friendship is about telling people what they need to hear, and not what they want to hear.
  • It’s about helping people face their problems, and not letting them walk unknowingly into failure.
  • It’s about creating a culture of strength, and not a culture of skinny.
  • It’s about telling those women who work their asses off to lift heavy things that strong is not only beautiful, but also badass.
  • It’s about telling those people who struggle with their weight that while your value doesn’t come from how you look, you are valuable enough deserve the chance to change your unhealthy lifestyle (and in CrossFit you will have a group of people who stand with you).

In my world, I celebrate strength as beautiful. I encourage people to consider their lives differently than they did before. I cheer people who try to shed the habits that are eating them from the inside.

What I try to avoid is undermining their choice to get healthy, to change, and to try to be better than they were yesterday.

Coda

In nearly every workout, I finish last in the class. I’ve long ago given up the idea that I can compete with the athletes in our box.

The great thing about a healthy lifestyle, though, is that you’re not measured by where you stand on the podium. You’re measured by how many times you cross the finish line. And every damned day I cross that finish line…just like everyone else in the box.

Brad coming in last

5 comments
khanadha
khanadha

Brad - I run a networking group for women in the entertainment industry and posted the segment above about women to our message board. It's started a whole conversation about personal struggles with weight loss and fitness and how one crass comment can send you spinning out. Thanks for including the women's perspective in this. We are held to a ridiculous standard.

Brad_King
Brad_King

Hey P.J: Thanks for commenting. I think it's only hard when they are getting judged by other folks. I know in the gym, they are marveled at. (My wife and I are in awe of all the competitors and folks who kick serious ass.)

tigerdactyl
tigerdactyl

Great work! It's been awesome to see you transform.

Brad_King
Brad_King

Hey Karen: Thanks for reading and commenting, and I'm glad that you had a good discussion although I am not sure I agree that women are held to a ridiculous standard. I hang around with runners, CrossFitters, endurance athletes, and the like, and they are extremely accepting communities. You just have to choose where you spend your time, and I think most people choose poorly. I do think we don't have a language to talk about fitness and health in this country. Instead, we replace positive discussions with sarcasm, snark, and assumptions. I think that makes it difficult for anyone who is making an effort to get healthy. Regardless of the standard, I know the only way for anyone to get support is for them to talk about it and I'm happy that people are having that discussion in and around my sphere today.

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  1. […] said this before, and I’ll say it again: Strong women are badass. We’re fortunate that our home box, CrossFit Broad Ripple, encourages and supports everyone […]